The road to the perfect cartoon family is paved with dead mothers.
From Disney classics like Bambi, The Little Mermaid and Brother Bear, to Pixar’s Finding Nemo and Up, to television cartoons such as Avatar: The Last Airbender and Gravity Falls, the absent role of a mother, or mother figure, runs rampant. Either they are ceremoniously killed off, removed before the story takes place, or simply not around.
This isn’t anything new. Looking back at our fairytales, we see the role of the mother replaced with evil stepmothers and benevolent godmothers. And now, in modern storytelling, the mother is often made absent in order to make way for the fun, lovable father figure, as highlighted in Sarah Boxer’s amazing article in The Atlantic.
However, there is a third trend in the role of the dead mother that has often rubbed me up the wrong way. A trend that I could never put my finger on, until I started watching Steven Universe.
Long story short, Steven is the son of Rose Quartz, the leader of a rebellious group of heroes called the Crystal Gems, and a human musician called Greg Universe. And from the start of the show, Rose is out of the picture (well, she is technically half of Steven, since she had to give up her physical form so that Steven could be born, and is technically still alive and stuck to his belly button… it’s a very weird show).
Suffice it to say, Rose Quartz’s physical absence weighs heavy on all of the characters. The characters regularly reminisce about how amazing she was, how much they miss her, how much they loved her, how she was this fantastic leader in almost every way. Her portrait looms over the household. Literally. It’s hanging above the door. Elegant, graceful, beautiful.
It isn’t until the episode ‘Story for Steven’ that we see her as a character for the first time (not counting her brief appearance on a video tape in a previous episode). In ‘Story for Steven’ we see a flashback of the day Rose and Greg first met. The Rose Quartz we see, and the Rose Quartz we’ve been hearing about, don’t exactly match.
She’s polite, kind, and beautiful. But she is also slightly goofy, her hair in mild disarray compared to the portrait, and she hesitant when Greg confesses his love for her. In the subsequent flashback episodes, we see more of her flaws come through. In ‘We Need To Talk’, she treats Greg more like a puppy than a human. She has to be taught that a relationship isn’t just laughing and smiling all the time. She’s shown to have insecurities about her past, about the differences between her and Greg, and about love as a whole.
And then in ‘Greg the Babysitter’, Rose lets a baby climb up a ferris wheel and subsequently breaks the ferris wheel in order to save Greg and the baby. Her heart was always in the right place, but she clearly made mistakes that upset people, or put them in great jeopardy.
And yet, even after these episodes, her perfect image is still paraded between the characters. There are love songs, stories, and still that perfect portrait on the wall. When we learn more about the actions of her past, they’re framed with the best intentions. She did it to save humanity. She did it for the greater good. She did it because she just loved Earth so, so much.
And that’s when it finally hit me: so many dead mothers in cartoons are perfect, idolised women.
All we see of Bambi’s mum is how much she loves him and wants to protect him. All we see of Coral in Finding Nemo is her cute banter with Marlin, and her need to protect her children at the cost of her own life. In The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Beginnings, Ariel’s mother is a beautiful face that gets crushed by a pirate ship. In Brother Bear, Koda’s mother is speared to death while protecting her cub.
If a mother is lucky enough to get a line of dialogue, or a bit of screen time before her inevitable demise, it is used to show how amazing she is. And more often than not, that perfection is simply a tool; the myth of the perfect dead mother puts an extra narrative weight to her children’s actions. Your mother was an amazing person before she died. She dedicated her life to her maternal instinct and paid the ultimate price, so the least you could do is go on an amazing adventure.
But in Steven Universe, the myth of the perfect dead mother is simply shown to be that. A myth.
We see glimpses of Rose Quartz in action. And while she is no doubt kind and thoughtful, she isn’t this perfect image that the other Crystal Gems portray over and over. Not only that, but in recent episodes, this idolisation is having a negative impact on Steven’s psychology. In ‘Lion 4: Alternate Ending’, Steven is desperate to figure out his destiny. He is the son of Rose Quartz, after all! He must have a reason for existing. There must be some big plan for him.
And when Greg tells him that there isn’t one, that answer isn’t good enough. He has heard all of these stories of Rose Quartz, about how amazing and wonderful she is, that he is now desperate to live up to her standards. In the most heart-wrenching episode ‘Storm in the Room’, where Steven talks to an imaginary Rose Quartz, he even comments about dying his hair pink just to emulate his mother.
Or, rather, to emulate the mother that everyone has made for him.
Because the real Rose Quartz — the one with character flaws, the one who isn’t perfect, the one who is very much alive — was clear about what she wanted from Steven:
“Each living thing has an entirely unique experience. The sights they see, the sounds they hear, the lives they live are so complicated and so simple…And I need you to know that every moment you love being yourself, that’s me. Loving you. And loving being you. Because you’re going to become something extraordinary: you’re going to be a human being.”
Images via Cartoon Network